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High in the mountains of China’s southernmost province – the island of Hainan – I walk into a long room full of bikes. They’re a far cry from the lumbering machines that once led to China becoming known as the “kingdom of bicycles”.
These are a new breed: mountain bikes and road bikes, all made of high-end carbon fibre. They are light and fast and not one of them has a rack for carrying sacks of rice. These bikes are built for speed, for the joy of riding and nothing else. They are a sign of all that has changed in China.
“Those were good bikes,” says Frank Ji, when I ask him about the old ones. “They would go and go and go but nobody buys them any more.” Ji is owner of Velo China, a bike rental and touring company based in Wuzhishan, and has agreed to show me why Hainan, the so-called “Hawaii of the east”, has become a magnet for cyclists.
We set off towards Five Finger Mountain, where rebellious Li people once hid from their distant Beijing rulers, and where roads arrived only in the 1980s.
Historically, Hainan was thought of as a place to send criminals, a distant outpost of the empire, known for pearls, jade, opium and pirates. But over the past two decades it has been reborn as a destination both for mainstream tourists and, more recently, cyclists.
“The roads are good and you’ve got the best beach in China,” says Peter Snow Cao, owner of Bike China, which also leads tours on the island. “And there aren’t actually that many people living here, so it’s relatively low traffic.”
Ji has also witnessed this two-wheeled migration, now helped by the staging of an annual professional race, the Tour of Hainan. “In the high season [November-March], you can see hundreds of cyclists in one day.”
As we ride, Ji fills me in on his own migration. He first came here as a student and was struck by the contrast with his home, the steel manufacturing city of Handan, near Beijing, where the air was thick with smog and rivers were black. “When I saw all the green,” he says, “I never wanted to leave.”
One day, Ji was in Hainan’s main city of Haikou when he came across an old mountain bike for sale. He had enough money for the bike but not for the bus ride home. So, instead, he cycled across the island, all 250km to Wuzhishan. After that, he was hooked.
Ahead of us, the road rises up into the mountains, and the sounds of the city recede. I can see why so many people find Hainan to be a respite from the rest of China. Many of the reasons Hainan is ideal for cycling are the same reasons Ji fell in love with it: the clean, quiet air; the fresh food; the slower pace of life.
Waterfalls tumble through the forest. Occasionally I have to steer round a cow or chicken that has wandered into the road. As we climb higher, there are fewer farms and soon we are in the rainforest, still home to the rare clouded leopard, Asiatic black bears and several species of deer.
We come to a village where the buildings are painted with angular pictograms of the Li people, whose language is closer to Thai than to the Chinese languages, and whose iconography hails from Indonesia. For a few moments, it almost feels like we aren’t in China any more.
We continue beyond the village, and say little as we make our final ascent. At last, the road peaks at a huge gate adorned with dragons, announcing the entrance to the Wuzhishan Nature Preserve.
We get off our bikes so we can stroll around a luxury resort that has recently opened. Then we sit in silence, enjoying the sound of birds in the forest. Finally, with the sun setting, we climb on our bikes and begin our long, swift descent, winding around Five Fingers Mountain, slipping back into town, back into China, and back to today.